Numbers 12

One of the most universally celebrated events in human life occurs when two people decide to get married. It is almost a miracle that out of the millions of people who live in this country, and the billions of people who live on the planet Earth that two people can find one another, fall in love and get married. There are ceremonies that surround most weddings. Special vows are taken, symbols of love and loyalty are exchanged, the blessings of God are sought and the best wishes of friends are expressed on the day that two people get married. Weddings are a time for photographs, receptions, toasts, honeymoons and the hope that the newlyweds will live “happily ever after.” In almost every case, the marriage of two people sparks joy and celebration.

Notice that I said joy and celebration occur in almost every instance; there are some marriages that generate a very different feeling when people hear the news that two people have gotten married. Not everybody has been rejoicing over the fact that last week in San Francisco more than 500 same-sex couples got married. It is against the law in the state of California for two people of the same sex to get married, but the Mayor of San Francisco ignored the state law and ordered marriage licenses be issued to any same-sex couples requesting one. In the state of Massachusetts, the legislature is deadlocked over whether or not to allow same-sex marriages in that state.

The Ohio legislature recently passed a law that limits marriage in this state to a man and a woman. I was surprised to discover that all of the State Senators from the Cleveland area voted in favor of same-sex marriage, and all of the members of our congressional delegation are at least in favor of Domestic Unions, and perhaps they are in favor of same-sex marriage as well. While marriage is a universally celebrated event, there are some instances when the decision by two people to get married can cause more conflict and confusion than it causes celebration. If one of your children were to suddenly announce to you that they were planning on marrying someone of the same sex, how would you respond? Would that news fill your heart with joy and delight, or would it result in a mixture of shock and disapproval?

This sense of not being pleased with someone’s choice of a marriage partner stands at the center of our text from Numbers 12. It seems that Aaron and Miriam; the brother and sister of Moses, were not pleased with their brother’s decision to marry a certain person. The text says it rather plainly; “Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Ethiopian woman whom he had married.” Moses was their brother, but they did not want his chosen wife to be their sister-in-law. The Bible does not tell us her name, nor does it tell us about anything that she had done to merit their dislike of her; it only describes who she was. She was a Cushite, an Ethiopian woman.

As our celebration of Black History Month continues, did you know that Moses was married to a black woman from Ethiopia? We know a great many things about Moses, but this fact has somehow gone unaddressed over the years. We know that Moses spoke with God at the burning bush in Exodus 3, but most people did not know that Moses was married to a black woman from Ethiopia. We know that Moses was the instrument through which God sent a series of deadly plagues upon Egypt until the Pharaoh agreed to release the Hebrew people from 430 years in slavery, but most people did not know that Moses was married to a woman from Africa.

We know about Moses and the Ten Commandments, Moses and the crossing of the Red Sea and Moses who led Israel on their 40-years of wandering before God allowed them to enter into the Promised Land. It is amazing how many things people know about Moses, which makes it all the more amazing that they did not know what is stated in Numbers 12:1; “he married an Ethiopian woman.” And we know one thing more; Aaron and Miriam spoke against Moses because they did not approve of his wife.

This action on their part did not go unnoticed by God. When Aaron and Miriam began speaking against Moses and began saying that they, too, had leadership credentials, God called all three of them out from the camp to the Tent of Meeting. Then God confronted Aaron and Miriam about their actions. God reminded them that He was the one who assigned leaders for the Hebrew people. He reminded them that while most prophets only hear from God through dreams and visions, Moses speaks with God “face-to-face.” God was so angry with them for their attempt to undermine the leadership and authority of Moses that he afflicted Miriam with leprosy and then banished here from the community for seven days.

This was a terrible price for Miriam to pay for speaking out against her brother, so one is led to wonder what it was about this woman that caused them so much concern. After all, it was Miriam who had watched over Moses when, as a baby he was placed in a basket and set upon the Nile to protect him from the edict of the Pharaoh that all newborn Hebrew boys should be killed. Later in life, it was Aaron that was sent by God to go with Moses when they made the demand to “let my people go.” After a lifetime of working together, Miriam and Aaron are now publicly speaking against their own brother. Why?

Let me suggest several possibilities as to why this might have been. Maybe it was the fact that she was a woman of a different racial group. Maybe they were no more excited about inter-racial marriage in ancient Israel than many people are today in contemporary American society. Did you know that until 1961, inter-racial marriage was against the law in many states in this country? Maybe this verse is pointing us toward one of the most sensitive and volatile issues in our own society. Whether you look at the white or the black communities of America, you will discover that not everybody approves of inter-racial marriage. Even though the United States Supreme Court lifted the ban on inter-racial marriage more than 40 years ago, I believe there are more people in this country who oppose such marriages than there are that consider race to be irrelevant where love and marriage are concerned.

Many of you remember the film; Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? It starred some of the biggest names in Hollywood at that time; Sidney Poitier, Spencer Tracey, Katherine Hepburn and many others. That film came out just two years after the ban on inter-racial marriage was declared unconstitutional, and it sparked a national debate that actually continues to this day. Two people of different races may fall in love with each other, but will they be accepted by their family and their friends?

The same questions were explored a few years later in the TV situation comedy series called The Jeffersons. That was a weekly show about an upwardly mobile black couple that has moved into an upscale apartment on the East Side of Manhattan in New York City. George and Louise Jefferson were living in a building where they were the only black people, except for the woman who was part of an inter-racial couple. Not a week went by when George did not find some way to hurl an insult at one or both of those people, because he was not supportive of inter-racial marriage. That show was another attempt to address the issue of racial politics where the issue of inter-racial marriage was concerned.

Not many years ago, the black director Spike Lee produced a film entitled Jungle Fever. Once again some of the biggest names in Hollywood were called upon to walk us through what remains as a controversial issue in our society. The issue in Jungle Fever was less about inter-racial marriage, and more about inter-racial sex. Our society may have made some progress in the work place, the voting booth, the playing fields of college and professional sports, and the classrooms of higher education, but love and marriage between an inter-racial couple remains a serious taboo in many places in America.

Many people may not know that the former slave and black abolitionist Frederick Douglass was married twice, and after the death of his first wife who was also black, he married a white woman. That inter-racial marriage caused an uproar in 1888 when it took place. Douglass’ family largely disapproved of it, as did most of his friends. The father of the woman he married had been one of the leading abolitionists in America, but when his white daughter married a black man he cut off all contact with her from that point forward. He may have wanted black people to be free, but he did not want them to be free to marry his daughter.

We who are Christians speak the words that say “all men are created equal,” but what is our view on inter-racial marriage? People who have been involved in the quest for a color-blind society speak the famous words by Martin Luther King, Jr. about living in a country where people should be “judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” But what do those same people really think about inter-racial marriage? The attitude displayed by Aaron and Miriam is alive and well today. What crosses your mind when you see an inter-racial couple? Do we just see two people who are in love, who find happiness and contentment in one another, or do we grumble that “as soon as a black man gets successful the first thing he does is go out and get a white wife?” I do not think that racial tensions in America will be fully resolved until our anxieties and fears about inter-racial marriage have been fully resolved.

Of course, there may be a very different issue at stake, namely that Aaron and Miriam objected not on racial but on regional grounds. Let me suggest, that I do not think in this case that it was a matter of skin color or complexion that was at stake. At that time in history in that part of the world, it is reasonable to assume that all of the people in that region were dark skinned people. There were no white people in Egypt or Canaan in the 12th century BC. As I have said many times before, Moses probably looked nothing like Charlton Heston in the 1958 film The Ten Commandments. Moses probably looked like any number of dark-skinned persons we see every day.

However, ethnic tensions are as strong as tensions based solely on skin color and complexion. It was ethnic tensions among black people in the African countries of Burundi and Rwanda that led to the slaughter of 300,000 black people of the Tutsi and Hutu tribes. It was ethnic tensions among white people in Bosnia and Kosovo that led to tens of thousands of people being murdered in what was called ethnic cleansing. If the truth were told, it was ethnic and tribal tensions in Africa between the 15th and 18th centuries that caused some Africans to sell other Africans into slavery in this country.

Moses and his wife may have had a very similar outward complexion, but she was of a different ethnic or national group, and Aaron and Miriam may have disapproved of her because of that fact. In fact, they did not simply disapprove of his Cushite or Ethiopian wife, but they tried to lead a rebellion against Moses and take his place as the leaders of the people all because of the person he chose to marry. I am not as interested today in what God did to Miriam after she spoke up against Moses; I just want to focus on the reasons for her actions. She objected because Moses married an Ethiopian, and whether her objections were over color or over ethnicity, this verse makes us consider our own views on this still very sensitive issue. Prejudice based upon ethnicity is as sinful as prejudice based upon color and complexion. In Acts 17, Paul says that “from one blood God made all nations of men to dwell together upon the face of the earth.” It is God who made all of the nations. It is men and women who turn nationality into an object of scorn and hatred.

Those of us who are African Americans have a very narrow sense of how that term applies. We assume that it applies only to black people born in the United States. That may explain some of the tension that exists between black people born in this country and black people who move here from places throughout Africa and the Caribbean. If they live here and become U.S. citizens they are also African Americans, but sometimes there are tensions between us that are thick enough to cut with a knife. We are divided by accents or cultural traditions, but those things can often be enough to create permanent divisions among us. Maybe it was region and not race that caused Aaron and Miriam to speak against the Cushite wife of Moses.

If those issues of race or region were the only grounds upon which Aaron and Miriam were speaking, then I would think that their motives were narrow-minded and prejudiced. However, there is one more reason that might have been the basis of Aaron and Miriam’s objections, and if this third issue was their real concern then I would be in agreement with them. It might have been a matter of religious faith. It may have been that Moses’ wife was not only an Ethiopian, but also a follower of some other religious tradition that was polytheistic in nature. Maybe she believed in many different gods, as was common in most cultures of the ancient world. Israel was the one nation on earth at that time that was devoted to the idea of monotheism, of belief in or service to only one God. The first and second commandments were designed to guard Israel against polytheism. Maybe Miriam was concerned that Moses and his wife were moving in two different streams of faith, and perhaps his wife might pull Moses and some of the people off course. Maybe Miriam and Aaron were not racists or bigots of any kind. Maybe they were simply concerned for the religious integrity of their brother and their nation. We will never know for sure, but this possibility is as likely as any other.

We know that later in the history of Israel, this is exactly what happened to one king after another. Consider Solomon who married foreign wives and then allowed them, much to God’s displeasure, to set up idols to those gods in the Temple in Jerusalem. We know that the nation of Israel was regularly being challenged to adopt polytheistic practices despite the first and second commandments. It may very well be that this was the real concern for Miriam and Aaron.

Let me illustrate this issue by referring back to the 2004 Super Bowl game where the half-time show seemed to overshadow the game itself. People seem to think that the split-second when Janet Jackson’s breast was exposed was the low point in American television history. Let me suggest that we have made much too much of that episode in relation to the commercials that were being shown throughout the entire game. One commercial showed a couple sitting together on a sofa, and when the man gets up to get a beverage a monkey sits down next to the woman and tries to proposition her to go upstairs and have sex. Nobody says a word about that, because they are offended by Janet Jackson. Then a couple is shown sitting in a horse-drawn carriage when the horse passes gas and leaves the face of the woman covered in soot. We are not offended by that, but we are outraged by Janet Jackson. Our ability to be selective in our moral outrage is often hard to understand.

However, there was one commercial that made a life-long impression on me even though I do not use the product that was being advertised. It involved a stable full of Clydesdale horses being prepared to lead their famous wagon in a parade. These horses are not only beautiful, but they are also enormous in size. Looking on from the side is a small donkey that dreams about the day when he will be able to join in with the Clydesdales and pull that wagon. It seems like a most unlikely possibility, but at the very end of the commercial his dream comes true. Four teams of horses are pulling the wagon, and the front team is a Clydesdale and a donkey. I guess the message of the commercial from the advertiser’s point of view is that dreams can come true.

However, I came away from that commercial with a very different message; it was Paul’s warning in II Corinthians 6: 14 about being unequally yoked. It was impossible, for all practical purposes for a Clydesdale and a donkey to pull a wagon together, because no yoke could be designed that would serve both of them efficiently. They would have been unequally yoked. The same can be said about inter-faith marriage; it results in two people being unequally yoked. One person affirms Christ while their spouse affirms Muhammad. One person observes Christmas while their spouse affirms Ramadan. One person displays the Star of Bethlehem while their spouse displays the Star of David.

Amos 3: 3 says, “How can two walk together unless they agree.” There are a great many areas in life where disagreement between spouses can be overcome or overlooked. However, a disagreement about the core confession of one’s life and faith is not one of those things that can be overcome or overlooked very easily. When people walk along separate spiritual paths while trying to live in the same household, they are like the Clydesdale and the donkey. It is a team that may appear to work in a TV commercial, but in the real world of life and faith that is exactly what Paul means by being unequally yoked. And far more than issue of race or region, it may have been differences over religion that caused Miriam and Aaron to speak against Moses. Their methods might have been wrong, but their motives might have been right on target.

In the end we will never know just why this controversy about the Cushite wife of Moses occurred. The text actually spends more time focusing on the consequences of what was done by Miriam and Aaron and not with their motivation. Having said that, this text still leaves us with some profound questions to consider. As followers of Jesus Christ, would it matter to us if someone in our family were to enter upon an inter-racial marriage? I think it would bother us much more than it would bother God. Would it bother us if someone in our family were to enter upon a marriage with someone from a different region of the world that speaks with a discernible accent and clings to differing cultural trends? Here again, it would probably bother us more than it would bother God. But if the issue were to move from race and/or region to a difference of religious tradition, I think we have moved into an entirely different area of concern.

Two years ago a book was released by Judson Press, the publishing agency for American Baptist Churches, entitled Just Don’t Marry One. Given the history of racial politics in America, one might think that the book was a caution concerning inter-racial marriage. However, the book takes a very different posture on that issue. It interviews a dozen inter-racial couples and reaches a significant conclusion; that so long as two people are equally committed to their faith in Jesus Christ, the fact that they belong to different racial groups should not matter at all.

The story of Miriam, Aaron and Moses forces us to consider this issue. As people of faith in Jesus Christ, we should not oppose a marriage because it is inter-racial or inter-regional in nature. However, when it comes to being inter-faith, that couple may be taking upon themselves more than they can bear over the long haul. Clydesdales and donkeys may be able to work together in a made-for-TV commercial, but in the real world, that would be called being unequally yoked. That word applies to inter-faith marriage, and that may have been what worried Miriam and Aaron all along.


Marvin A. McMickle is pastor of Antioch Baptist Church in Cleveland, OH.

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About The Author

Marvin A. McMickle is the president of Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School. A pastor for more than 30 years, he has also taught preaching at New York, New Brunswick and Princeton Theological Seminaries. From 1987-2011 he was Senior Pastor of Antioch Baptist Church of Cleveland, Ohio. He was the Professor of Homiletics at Ashland Theological Seminary from 1996-2011. Upon leaving Ashland he was voted by his faculty colleagues to be Professor Emeritus. He is a member of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Board of Preachers at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia. He was elected to be the 12th President of Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School in 2011.

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